DAY 6

LGBT refugees from Iran are asking why it's become harder for them to come to Canada

This week, a U.S. appeals court upheld the temporary suspension of President Donald Trump's travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries. But LGBT refugees from Iran are more concerned about Canada. As the Trudeau government prioritized Syrian refugees, LGBT Iranians say they've found it harder to get in. Saghi Ghahraman, President of the Iranian Queer Organization, explains what's at stake.
In a climate of violent homophobia, a small group of unidentified people gathered on an outcrop above Tehran to fly a rainbow Pride flag. (Uploaded anonymously to JoopeA)
Listen8:01

Up until recently, Saghi Ghahraman helped Iranian LGBT refugees come from the Middle East to Canada. As president of the Iranian Queer Organization, Ghahraman played a critical role working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to confirm the legitimacy of asylum seekers.

Saghi Ghahraman is an Iranian-born writer and poet who is president of the Iranian Queer Organization. Ghahraman was exiled from Iran but now lives in Toronto. (Saghi Ghahraman/LinkedIn)
Facing persecution, violence and even death, Iranian LGBT refugees flee most commonly to Turkey. Ghahraman recalls one of her clients who sold his kidney to pay smugglers for the travel costs to leave the country. Now, in poor health, the man is looking to the UNHCR and to Canada for help in relocating.

Had he been looking for relocation in 2011, likely he would have been on a fast track to come to Canada, says Ghahraman. Under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada had officially requested that Iranian refugees who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender be quickly processed and settled in Canada at a high priority.

Right after this promise and right after Trudeau took office, everything stopped. Everything stopped and nobody told us anything.- Saghi Ghahraman

Ghahraman says this has changed since 2015, and attributes that, in part, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to prioritize refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria.  

"We don't like to think it, but it seems that Prime Minister Trudeau's campaign promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees had an impact," says Ghahraman. "Even though they said right at the beginning that it wouldn't impact all other refugees, it did."

Activists helping Iranian LGBT refugees are accusing the Liberal government of neglecting the applicants. They say the government has prioritized its focus on processing Syrian refugees. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Ghahraman says she was contacted by refugee claimants in Turkey who were in the middle of applications to Canada when they were contacted by UNHCR interpreters.

"The interpreters — Farsi interpreters hired by the UNHCR — called LGBT refugees almost everyday," claims Ghahraman. "All the while telling them that the [Canadian] embassy would not be open to them … so either you stay in Turkey forever, or you switch to the U.S."

Most refugee claimants did switch their applications for settlement to the United States.

"All but two lesbians," says Ghahraman.

A federal appeals court upheld a suspension this week of U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order banning those trying to enter the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (CBC )

However, the contested U.S. ban on travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries has created confusion and uncertainty for refugee applicants — and for those helping them. 

Even if the refugee admissions system resumes processing applications, and these LGBT refugees from Iran are allowed to enter the U.S., Ghahraman says there is doubt about whether or not they want to go.

"They are all afraid to go to a very hostile country," Ghahraman said. "They are very afraid that their neighbours, their classmates, their co-workers will be somebody like Donald Trump … or a supporter of Trump."

If Canada does not change its procedures for LGBT applicants from Iran, Ghahraman says, they will continue to be stuck in Turkey, a country that also struggles with homophobia.

"These are the gay and lesbian and trans people, who are at risk by their Turkish neighbours, and by their Iranian neighbours," Ghahraman says. "They cannot get a job. When they get a job they are attacked, they are asked for sexual favours."

They are assaulted. They are knifed. I have one of my clients that was knifed to death.- Saghi   Ghahraman

The conditions in Turkey, and the controversy over the now-temporarily suspended U.S. travel ban, has led Ghahraman and other advocates for Iranian LGBT refugees to redouble their lobbying efforts.

"We would appreciate this chance. We are begging the government," says Ghahraman.

Ghahraman is hopeful that if Canadian politicians are made aware of the situation for Iranian LGBT refugees, that more of the applicants will be accepted for entry into Canada.

"They are not a large number … maybe 50 - 60 at this point who are at risk."

     

Response from the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship

Day 6 reached out to Ahmed D. Hussen, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. His office responded with this statement:

Canada has a proud history of providing protection to the world's most vulnerable groups, including persons in the LGBTQ community. Canada receives referrals from the UNHCR based on vulnerability, which includes being a member of the LGBTQ community. It is not government policy to track individuals based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity nor does our government block any vulnerable group from being a sponsored refugee.

Our government renewed funding for the Rainbow Refugee Committee, which provides support for LGBTQ refugees who have been privately sponsored. Private sponsorship groups can select refugees to sponsor according to specific criteria, such belonging to the LGBTQ community. Our government has tripled the spots available for privately sponsored refugees to 16,000 in 2017, compared to the spots made available under the previous government. We will continue to be a champion of LGBTQ rights, at home and abroad.